Three years later, COVID impact remains on rural ND hospitals

Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 7:35 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 23, 2023 at 11:25 PM CDT
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RUGBY, N.D. (KMOT) – One of the greatest unknowns three years ago was the COVID-19 virus.

The world has changed a lot since then, but healthcare providers are still facing challenges and having to adapt.

Your News Leader gets a glimpse of some of the lasting changes and impact it has had a rural hospital since then.

Dustin Hager, a physician assistant at the Heart of America Medical Center said he remembers not knowing what the medical community was up against.

“We were hopeful that the virus would burn itself out or the virus would move through the population at a quick pace, and it would be done quickly,” said Hager.

Erik Christenson, the CEO at the hospital in Rugby, said in the post-pandemic world, the biggest change has been the attitude towards healthcare.

“There was a lot of talk about, we don’t need all these hospitals. There are too many hospital beds. When COVID came, we didn’t have enough hospital beds,” said Christenson.

Hospitals were short on healthcare professionals then and it continues to plague them, clinics, and nursing homes. Christenson said 15% of geriatric nurses left the industry.

“Environmental services, housekeepers, folks that want to clean the facility. Kitchen staff. I mean, we’re finding that there’s a struggle across the entire healthcare system,” said Christenson.

Some of the custodians haven’t returned, and hospital officials said it’s been a challenge to fill those positions.

“A lot of places have staffed bed, they have more licensed beds, but they can’t fill all of them because they don’t have enough staff,” said Christenson.

Hager said before, during and after the worst of COVID, he sees his role as an educator, so patients can make informed decisions about their treatment.

“It’s hard. There’s a lot of regulations. You’re held to a very high standard, but in my mind, there’s nothing more rewarding than helping your friends and neighbors who are sick or ill,” said Hager.

He said he’s seen the rate of childcare and preventative care visits begin to rise again.

As far as telehealth services go, Christenson said rural health clinics are currently under-reimbursed, but there is a national push to raise it.